What it is about sand dunes that make them so fascinating? Is it the ever shifting wind sculpted peaks and valleys, the rarity of this phenomenon, or the fact that they give us grown ups a chance to play in a sand box of epic proportions? Whatever it is, we’re hooked.
We’ve visited five different sand dunes across the country – Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, The Oregon Sand Dunes on the coast, Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico (twice), and now the Great Sand Dunes National Park here in Colorado. I couldn’t possibly claim that I have a favorite, as they are all amazing places to visit, but I can confidently say that the Great Sand Dunes has the most unique surrounding landscape. First there’s the rugged Sangre De Cristo Mountains rising above the dunes to the east.
Then there’s the creek that runs along the bottom of the dunes, creating a natural barrier between the giant piles of sand and the sweeping grasslands leading up to the mountains.
Medano Creek is a seasonal stream whose mountain fed waters reach their peak sometime around late May or early June. We didn’t expect to see any water at the this time of year, and sure enough the creek near the main dune parking area was completely dry. But farther up the river near the Sand Pit and Castle Creek picnic area, we discovered a shallow flowing stream. We took off our shoes and socks and walked down the river for a few miles, marveling at the fascinating sand patterns in the creek bed.
Of course, the very best part of the Great Sand Dunes are the dunes themselves. Encompassing an area of 30 square miles, and rising up to 750 feet tall, these dunes are the tallest in North America.
The Great Sand Dunes also win the prize for the most difficult to climb. The dunes here are soft – very, very soft – which makes hiking around them challenging to say the least. They’re also really hot. Even on an average summer or early fall day when the temperature is hovering around 80 degrees, the sand can reach up to 130 foot burning degrees! The final part of the dune difficulty trifecta is the elevation. We’re up above 8,000 feet here making a dune hike a workout for both the legs and the lungs.
All that was not going to stop us from climbing the dunes though. We arrived at the Great Sand Dunes on Sunday around mid-day, secured ourselves a spot in the lovely Pinyon Flat Campground adjacent to the dunes (more on the campground in the next post), and promptly set off to hike the dunes. The tallest dune in the park is Star Dune. At an elevation of 755 feet, hiking to the top is a grueling 6-mile round trip climb. The second tallest dune is High Dune at an elevation of 700 feet. This dune is a bit closer to the main parking area which means it only takes 3 miles of hiking up the soft sand to reach it. Of course, all these distances are merely an estimate since there is no set trail up the ever shifting sand. We decided to tackle the high dune first, figuring if we still had some energy left we could continue on to Star Dune.
As soon as we started to climb I knew it was going to be a challenge. Unlike the dunes at White Sands, the soft sand here provides no stable surface on which to walk, and with every step you sink deep into the loose granules. The steeper the dune, the more difficult it got. At one point it felt like we were sliding down two steps for every one step up.
The majority of people out on the dunes didn’t make it much farther than the first uphill section. But we could see a few determined folks up higher in the dunes and decided to follow their example of walking along the sand ridges to get to the top.
It was tough going and we stopped to rest a LOT. I think this might be the hardest 1.5 mile uphill I’ve ever climbed.
We persevered though, and made it to the top well under the 2 hour average time that the park service claims it will take. The 360 degree view was incredible.
After all that there was no way we were continuing on to Star Dune. Considering the tiny amount of foot prints leading in that direction, we were not the only one’s to make this decision. Instead we enjoyed a few minutes of rest and a snack at the top before heading back down. Needless to say, the way down was much easier. We slide, ran and tumbled down the dunes in a fraction of the time it took us to climb up.
Even though we didn’t make it to the top of the highest sand dune in North America, we did make it to the top of the second highest, which is still something to be proud of. And it means we can go back to the visitor center to get the sticker that says “I climbed High Dune.” We’ll be here at the dunes for the rest of the week, so get ready for more sand filled posts coming your way.
Those sand dunes make for some fantastic photos! I love the mix of terrain you have here. We were just hiking in dunes along the OR coast so I feel your pain about hiking these dunes…this looks waaaay harder due to the elevation…you guys are awesome to hike High Dune!
We loved the Oregon Sand Dunes! When we visited it had rained for the last week so the sand was packed down and pretty easy to walk on. And I agree, the mix of terrain here is pretty spectacular. The contrast between the sand the mountains is something I have never seen before.
Awesome photos! And darn, we will just miss you guys, we plan to be there this weekend or early next week.
We’ll be here until Sunday. If you arrive before then look for us in the site 32, loop A.
We won’t be there until Wednesday. Any chance you’re headed to the balloon fiesta?
We are headed to the balloon fiesta! Are you guys going too? I’m going to email you through your blog and let you know our schedule so we can hopefully set a time to meet up!
Yes, we are!
Hi Guys. My husband and I have been following your blog for some time and have enjoyed it. Since we are also in need of almost constant connectivity, we check your blog frequently to see if you’ve visited an area we’re planning to visit. We’re currently in Woodland Park, CO and were thinking of heading to the Great Sand Dunes NP for a few days, but their website indicates that rigs larger than 35′ will have a difficult time maneuvering in the park. Would that be your assessment as well? We’re looking at perhaps staying in Del Norte and traveling the 55 miles to the park for a day, since it appears we shouldn’t stay at the campground in the NP. We have a 41′ motor home. Thanks. Janice
Having been in the campground too I would definitely say that there are no spaces that would do a 41′ rig. A guy with a 39′ had to leave because he stuck out in the road in two places he tried.
I agree with Sherry, while there are some longer pull through sites, I think you’d be pushing it with a 41′ foot rig. There is a state park only 10 miles away though that was our back up plan. I am sure you could fit in there. Enjoy!
Thanks, Sherry and Amanda. We’ll look for the state park. Safe travels.
I am sooo impressed with you two. We have hiked some dunes in OR and in NM and would love to hike the Great Sand Dunes in CO at some point. I would proudly wear that sticker! :)
We did it all for the sticker :)
Looks like a blast, but maybe we’ll have to train for it first! … Definitely this is one more for the bucket list!!!
Yes, definitely one to put on the bucket list! Start training now :)
Another one of our favorite spots!
I can see why!
What a bummer. We left the day you got there. We too climbed the high dune and it was a huge struggle. But unlike you, I’m so far behind in posting my blog that it won’t show up for probably another 10 days. You guys are tough to hike it in mid day. We did it in the EARLY morning and had to wait two hours at the top for the clouds to lift so we’d have any view at all. Wish I’d known about the sticker. LOL! Wonder where else we’ve just missed each other? Great post on the hike! Wish I could learn to be as succinct.
Oh too bad we just missed you. I think if we knew how hard it was going to be we would have waited and hiked in the early evening instead. That sand was hot! I look forward to reading your post in 10 days :)
What a great hike! I think I need to start training now because hiking in soft sand is probably my least favorite thing to do. It takes FOREVER to get anywhere! But it definitely looks like it was worth it for the views and of course, the sticker. :-)
I hate walking in the sand too, and was sure a couple times that I wouldn’t make it to the top of that dune. I guess I really wanted the sticker though because I kept on going all the way to the top. I think the beauty of the dunes helped numb the pain of walking in the deep sand…at least a little bit.
Impressive! I love the list of all the Sand Dunes places you’ve been.
I guess we really do love sand dunes! Gonna have to look for some when we head east.